Experiencing the Northern Lights was a lifelong dream for us. We researched when and where we can see them, and then finally managed to combine this with a trip to Iceland (this was our third serious attempt to visit the country). So our road trip in Iceland had this must-stop in it – although it wasn’t something we knew we can predict or influence.
We want to provide you with all the practical details about how to spot, see and photograph the Northern Lights, a.k.a. Aurora Borealis. We managed to do so in one night out of 6 on the island. We hope that you’ll have more opportunities to experience them. Good luck! 🍀 The rest will come as it follows below.
When can you see the Aurora Borealis?
Three conditions need to be fulfilled for one to be able to see the Northern Lights.
- Full darkness – there is no chance to see Aurora unless the skies are completely dark. This leaves the months of September to mid-April in the equation and the rest of the months out. Daytime in the winter months is also out for the same reason. If there is any natural light, no chance to see the Northern Lights. Urban and any other kind of human-produced lights will not affect the Aurora but may harden your eyes to differentiate it.
- The skies need to be clear. If you can see the stars – that’s a good sign. If you can’t see the stars, that means it’s cloudy – not a good sign. Clear skies are a prerequisite for seeing the Aurora. Partially clear skies could do the work too, only if The Northern Lights decide to perform for you on the clear sections of the sky.
- Locals told us that it has to be freezing cold. This somehow enables the Northern Lights. It could be a local legend, or it is just that nights in Iceland are generally freezing cold, or it has something to do with the prerequisite of the solar wind.
Remember, you could see the Aurora Borealis on a dark clear night.
Sources of information and forecasts
The Icelandic website shows forecasts for clouds, and a forecast for Aurora seeing probability. Everyone we met uses this website. While the cloudiness forecast might be true and accurate, the probability of seeing Aurora may let you down. We saw the Aurora Borealis on a night that was supposed to offer 0 chances of seeing them. So if you are a true believer, miracles may happen for you. 😃
Find a spot
One possible approach is to chase them – driving to non-cloudy areas, waking up every hour to see if they’re there, migrating to areas with better forecasts.
Another approach is to let it go, relax and check the skies from your balcony/terrace/garden/the street. If you see greenish kind of cloud, moving or standing still, there’s a pretty good chance that this is it! Proceed to an area with not many artificial lights so it is will be easy for your eyes to distinguish the Northern Lights in the sky. Eyes need some time to start really seeing things in the dark. Just take your time and avoid looking at street lights, the moon, flashlights, etc.
How to photograph the Northern Lights
Once you saw the Aurora Borealis, you probably want to capture the moment and share it with friends later. So as nobody knows how long the view of the Northern Lights will still be available from your location, you need to be fast at setting up the camera for some shots. The night we spotted the Northern Lights they lasted for about 40-50 minutes with a dramatic finale of about 10 minutes of dancing, changing forms and intensity, playing in the skies. It was magical.
There are some basic rules that anyone can follow in order to shoot the Aurora with amateur or semi-professional camera.
- The camera needs to be still, fixed, motionless. You can use a tripod, or be creative – put it on your car, on the ground, on a stone. You can attach it to anything that is still, and the camera itself has to be completely still. To keep the camera still while pressing the shoot button, you can use a remote control or self-timer.
- Set the speed setting from several to 30 seconds. Depending on the intensity of the Northern Lights, you can play around and find the optimal speed. We set it from 15 to 30 seconds for most of the photos.
- The ISO setting needs to be set high. For our DSLR camera, the maximum was 1600 so we set it right there. The high ISO enables the camera sensitivity for light. So this helps the camera to “see” the Aurora better.
- Set the F-number setting (exposure) to the lowest possible supported by the lens. This will let more light into the camera’s sensor. In our case, our Nikon D60 with Nikkor 18-55 lens supported the minimum of 3.5.
- The lens should be set to manual focus to or near infinity. This helps you get a clear shot of the night skies. You may want to test this with the first photo and check if the stars are in focus or not.
- If you want to include an object or yourself in the photo (and let’s face it, everyone want to be in a picture with the Aurora), you have to make sure the object/person is flashed with light/torch for less than a second during the shooting time. You can use a remote control or self-timer. 🔦
💡 If you want to photograph with your smartphone, there are apps that will try to adjust your camera settings to their best to capture the Northern Lights. We never used any of those apps on our phones and received mixed reviews on their efficiency.
💡 In case you don’t have a camera and lens that support manual modification of the ISO, speed, exposure, focus, you can always borrow or rent one. It’s the Northern Lights after all!
So we have those tips and tricks how to educate yourselves on the Northern Lights appearing, then spot and enjoy them, then photograph them. And it is always related to luck – there are people who spend sleepless nights with all the prerequisites fulfilled and have no luck in seeing the Aurora, there are people who spot it while doing something else and not even thinking about them. So don’t overthink, just be alert, and when the time comes – enjoy to the fullest every second of them! Thank you, Iceland, for this great opportunity to make a dream of ours come true!
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Check out other magical photos we took here and there on our Instagram page.